Where Do We Come From?

By John Lussier

Edward Osborne Wilson is widely acclaimed as the world’s leading expert on ants. But that doesn’t stop him from tackling the big questions. In fact, his expertise might lend something to some of the biggest questions we humans can ask: “Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?”

In his book, The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson attempts to answer exactly those three questions. While others have attempted to answer these questions utilizing philosophy, religious tradition, or personal introspection, Wilson finds these routes wanting. Instead, he believes we should look to the best of scientific scholarship to answer them. This, it seems, is the only true route to knowledge of the human condition.

If we go down this road with Wilson, how are these questions answered?  How did humanity come to be the social beings that we are, yet at the same time individuals out for our own good? How have we become this peculiar mix of saint and sinner?

Wilson believes that scientific consensus in regards to evolutionary theory fills in this story. You might have already heard a popular version of it. Humanity did not just come to be. Instead, we are the product of natural selection over a very very long time. Our social nature is also a product of this natural selection. Just as social insects like the ant and termite have come to conquer the invertebrate world, human beings have been able to conquer our world because of our social nature. How did this happen? A genetic anomaly among our earliest ancestors lead to a particular taste for meat. This increase in protein intake in turn lead to larger brain sizes. With a larger brain came the ability for working in groups to hunt for food. After this came the ability to utilize tools and particularly fire. Soon our ancestors found themselves gathering in groups, nesting in a particular location, and differentiating ourselves by roles. Not long afterwards came agriculture, ritual, religion, art, honor/shame, culture— humanity had arrived.

Humanity is a complex genetic chimera, selected by natural adaptation at multiple levels, believes Wilson. We walk a fine line between individual selfishness and altruism oriented towards our group. We are not lone wolves, but we are not drone-like ants either. At one and the same time we are sinner (selfish individuals) and saint (self-sacrificing for our tribe), all to the benefit of humanities genetic makeup.

Yet, as Wilson notes, with this genetic history comes some hereditary baggage. Our brains are hardwired for “groupishness”. We look out for ourselves by looking out for our family, friends, and community. Humanity is a tribalistic people. Evolutionary theory gives the reason for this, and the best of science backs it up. It’s very easy for us to split into us-vs-them, mine-vs-yours, right-vs-wrong humanity. I suppose this would be fine if humans didn’t have fists and teeth, and didn’t know how to build atomic weapons … but we do.

If humanity is part of a long line of evolutionary adaptation for tribalism, and in our heart of hearts we are a mix of sinner and saint, where are we going? Are we doomed to follow our genetic trajectory? Yes. We can’t get around it, thinks Wilson. It gives us the basis of who we are. We don’t have a choice in the matter. We will continue to be human. That said, we can give into the most oppressive forms of tribalism, or we can seek a more cosmopolitan kind of tribalism--one that looks for interconnections among humanity, and reduces the stories that keep us separate. We can seek to form a global human tribe, all inclusive, all embracing, all loving, all hopeful…

Forgive me for being cynical, but I kind of doubt we’re going to get there on our own. Our earliest ancestors of pre-history didn’t, human history is a brutish reality, and the global scene right now doesn’t give me much hope.  

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This is the first in a series of posts from John Lussier, a Master of Divinity student at Multnomah Biblical Seminary, on evolutionary theory, the development of morality, social dynamics, and the role of reason/emotion. Throughout the next several weeks he will be reading through a number of books on these subjects, and considering contemporary issues in light of them. You can follow along! Check out this list, and get reading!